Huw Merriman – 2022 Speech on West Coast Main Line Services

The speech made by Huw Merriman, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 15 December 2022.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for securing this important debate on rail transport services to the communities served by the west coast main line. She is a doughty campaigner and advocate for train services in her area. In my short tenure, we have spoken many times, and I know that we will speak more.

I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate, who were my right hon. Friends the Members for Tatton (Esther McVey) and for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Delyn (Rob Roberts), and not forgetting the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and my shadow colleagues the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi). I think that I have remembered everybody.

May I start by empathising with all my colleagues and their constituents for the challenges they have all faced on the west coast main line service? I am very sorry about the situation and am determined to see it turned around. I will explain how we will do that, but I owe it to those who have taken part in the debate to explain why the service levels have deteriorated so sharply.

Colleagues whom I have spoken to about this matter in recent weeks have told me that, prior to the summer, the service had been holding up relatively well. Indeed, between 9 January and 1 May, 3% of cancellations were attributed to Avanti. After the end of July, the figure rose to 25%, which is clearly unacceptable. The reason for such a dramatic deterioration can be traced back to the decision on 30 July by many drivers not to work beyond their contracted hours. Let me put that into context and perhaps explain why that may have happened.

A two-year qualified Avanti train driver is paid almost £67,500 and typically works 35 hours over three to four days. To ensure that the railways can operate over a seven-day period, the industry has relied on drivers working additional hours during their rest days. That, in my view—it would also appear to be the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West—has never been a satisfactory means to run our railway, as it relies on good will and means that a train operator cannot put its roster together without drivers volunteering.

On 30 July, as I said, things changed. Avanti experienced an immediate and near total cessation of drivers volunteering to work passenger trains on rest days. More than 90% of drivers who had previously volunteered to work overtime informed Avanti that they would no longer do so, which would not occur without some level of union organisation. That left Avanti unable to resource its timetable and, in the immediate term, resulted in the significant short-notice cancellations that right hon. and hon. Members have described. Avanti therefore reduced its timetable in response to the withdrawal of rest-day working. Although highly disruptive, it gave passengers a chance to try to make alternative plans. That approach reduced cancellations from about 25% of the service in late-July and August to about 5% this month.

May I now look more towards the future and be more positive as to what we are seeking to deliver? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn touched on this in her speech. The Department has been working with Avanti to overcome the operational issues. Agreed steps include almost 100 additional drivers entering service, extra trains on its key routes and extended booking options. Avanti is now operating a seven trains per hour timetable amounting to 264 daily train services on weekdays, which is a significant step up from the 180 daily services previously offered during the last six-month period, and more than those offered before the cessation of drivers volunteering to work rest days. Importantly—this is the really important part—the services are not dependent on rest-day working. That is good for Avanti, because it allows the company to put a roster together seven days a week, and it is seemingly good for the 90% of drivers who decided over the summer that they did not wish to work beyond their contracted hours. This timetable change represents an opportunity to put in place a long-term timetable base and to return to the extended booking horizons that passengers rightly expect.

I will touch on one point from the hon. Member for Stockport about catering services. I do not recognise those exact figures, but I will write to him. I have heard many stories where the catering services and the on-board service have just not been good enough, and within that we look to turn it around. He also touched on route knowledge and transferring between operators—a point with which the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North agreed. We completely concur; it takes months of route knowledge to get a driver to be able to travel a route safely.

The Office of Rail and Road and Network Rail have reviewed Avanti’s plan and are supportive of the proposition, noting that its full and successful delivery requires agreement with trade unions. The Department is monitoring Avanti’s delivery and holding the company to account as appropriate. The new timetable started on Sunday 11 December—Sunday just gone. Alas, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, we are now in a further period of national industrial action, so it may take time to assess fully the performance of the new timetable. I put on record that I am grateful to all the staff at Avanti who have allowed us to introduce this new timetable.

Many hon. and right hon. Members have inquired about Avanti’s contract extension. On 7 October this year, a short-term contract was entered into with the incumbent operator. The contract extends the delivery of the West Coast Partnership and Avanti West Coast business for six months until 1 April 2023. This gives Avanti a clear opportunity to improve its services to the standards that we and the public expect. The Government will then consider Avanti’s performance while finalising a national rail contract for consideration in relation to the route, alongside preparations by the operator of last resort, should it become necessary for the operator to step in at the end of the extension period.

Mr David Jones

Can the Minister say in percentage terms what his expectation is for Avanti being able to deliver a full timetable by the end of March?

Huw Merriman

I cannot, unfortunately, because as things stand we have industrial action. I would be unable to determine even what the service will be like into the first week of January, because there is an expectation when national industrial action takes place that only 20% of services can run, and the day after—a day like today—only 65% can run. Until that industrial action comes down, which I will touch on, I cannot give my right hon. Friend that assurance at all. I call on all parties in this House to call for industrial action to come down.

Mr Jones

I fully understand that we have national rail strikes, but putting that to one side, and focusing on the efforts that Avanti is making and the work that the Minister’s Department is doing, what is his expectation in percentage terms that Avanti will deliver a full timetable?

Huw Merriman

My right hon. Friend is experienced in this place, and he will perhaps be aware that I cannot give a percentage. All I can say is that the rail regulator and Network Rail’s project management office have reviewed the recovery plan, and they are content, while recognising the challenges that the operator faces, that matters within Avanti’s control look to be within its control, and therefore it should be able to roll the timetable out. Indeed, with 100 extra staff and not working on rest-day working practices, Avanti should be confident, and I am confident as well, but I cannot give him a percentage figure, I am afraid; I can just give him my optimism.

Navendu Mishra

Will the Minister give way?

Huw Merriman

I will not, because I want to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North and for Delyn called for the decision to award a short contract to have a “keep options open” status, and they are right to say that. An extension to the contract at this stage will not preclude transferring the contract to the operator of last resort at the end of the extension term.

I will respond to what the hon. Member for Stockport said in exchanges with the hon. Member for Slough, who then brought up the TransPennine Express franchise. I was asked specifically why the Secretary of State was blocking an offer to resolve issues at TPE. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Stockport that the Secretary of State signed off an offer for rest-day working to be put back to ASLEF on TPE, because that rest-day working agreement was not extended at ASLEF’s request at the end of last year. That offer was made, so he will be pleased by the Secretary of State’s input, but it was rejected by ASLEF despite being equally the most generous at time and a half. I will work on the basis that he will call for ASLEF to take a refreshed view on that situation.

That leads me nicely on to workforce reform; my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy both touched on industrial action. The way that passengers use the railway has changed. With more people working at home, we need to ensure that rail is put on a sustainable footing. The railway is losing up to £175 million of revenue each month as a result of fewer passengers post pandemic. That cannot continue. Passengers rightly expect a regular, reliable service seven days a week, but as we have found with Avanti, current shift patterns and voluntary weekend working for railway staff make that vision almost impossible.

Getting stuck in endless disputes will not solve any of that, or bring back the passengers that the railway so badly needs. The only solution is for everyone to come together and agree a new way forward. Contrary to what has been said, the Secretary of State and I have met the trade unions and heard their concerns. We helped to facilitate a fair offer that delivers a pay increase more generous than those in the private sector are gaining and that guarantees no compulsory redundancies. More than a third of RMT members voted to accept Network Rail’s proposal, despite being instructed not to. There is clearly an appetite among workers to strike a deal and I welcome today’s decision by the Transport Salaried Staffs Association—the second-largest union—to do just that. We urge the RMT to reconsider and to return to the negotiating table with the employers.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild a world-leading network. The result will be a thriving rail industry that continues to support Britain’s economy and society for generations to come. The hon. Member for Stockport urged me, through the hon. Member for Slough, to get involved. I can tell him that after this debate, I will be sitting down with Mick Lynch from the RMT and the employers to try to facilitate some form of agreement.

Navendu Mishra

The Minister is being generous in giving way. On his point about the workforce, I encourage him to comment on low pay, zero hours and the treatment of cleaning contractors who work on the railway. Inflation is at almost 11% and they deserve fair pay and a decent pension.

Huw Merriman

I will look into that and get back to the hon. Gentleman, because the stories that he shared need investigating. My constituent, who is also on a zero-hours contract, is concerned because every day that the trade unions go on strike on the railways, she loses her wages. She contrasted her wages with some of those taking strike action. I hope that we can work together in that spirit of compromise.

It is vital that we invest in infrastructure in the long term. The Department is investing £54 million to improve the power supply on the west coast main line at Bushey near Watford, which will create additional reliability and support the introduction of new bi-mode rolling stock for use on partially non-electrified routes, such as those in north Wales. In control period 7 between 2024 and 2029, we will invest more than £44 billion in the existing rail network to support Network Rail’s operations, maintenance and renewal activity. Network Rail’s business planning processes for control period 7 will focus on how the railway can contribute to long-term economic growth; support levelling up and connectivity; meet customers’ needs; and deliver financial sustainability.

As all right hon. and hon. Members have said, the west coast main line is critical to the national network today, but it is also important to the future of the railways. For example, on completion of High Speed 2 phase 2a, new HS2 trains will join the existing west coast main line to create direct services to places including Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow.

Turning to the name change, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy has made his pitch. All I can say is that, with a name such as mine, I am very much attracted to the idea, although I am sorry to say that my family came from south Wales rather than north Wales. However, that will not hold back the appetite for work.

Robin Millar

Will the Minister give way?

Huw Merriman

I was about to conclude, but I will.

Robin Millar

I thank the Minister; he is being very generous with his time, and I shall be brief. The reason for the name change is not simply to change the name; it is to reflect the strategic importance of north Wales to the integration of the United Kingdom and everything that flows from that. Does he accept that?

Huw Merriman

I do, and I accept that we are not talking gimmicks here; we are talking about detailed descriptions of what the line actually does, but also about what it can do to enhance the north Wales economy and community. I absolutely do get that.

To conclude, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to this important debate. Passengers on the west coast main line have had a torrid time, and we owe it to them to deliver a vastly improved service. The additional drivers, the move away from voluntary working and the new timetable afford the opportunity to turn matters around. I am determined to play my part. I expect Avanti, the unions and everyone connected with this to join me and ensure that this line delivers once again.